The Weakest Link: It was The Sun wot won it

What do you get when a crack team of hacks takes on Anne Robinson? Answer? Several embarrassed faces, a tabloid victor and a smug TV host
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There are two danger assignments for a journalist. One is going to a war zone; the other is coming face to face with Anne Robinson. Yesterday I undertook the scarier of the two assignments.

There are two danger assignments for a journalist. One is going to a war zone; the other is coming face to face with Anne Robinson. Yesterday I undertook the scarier of the two assignments.

Anne Robinson has recently been voted "the rudest person on television" which, of course, will have upped both her ante and her salary. She has described watching her new quiz programme The Weakest Link as being akin to watching a car crash. You want to turn away, but you can't. Actually, I can. But this daily ritual humiliation is attracting over four million viewers on daytime BBC2, and double that when it takes a prime-time evening spot on BBC1.

In brief, eight contestants answer questions as a team to amass a cash prize, but after each round have to nominate the "weakest link" who they think could spoil their chances of success. Between rounds, Ms Robinson humiliates each contestant before bidding the weakest link a curt goodbye.

Yesterday the BBC decided to show those who write flippantly about gladiatorial TV quiz shows what it is really like to be in one. I and colleagues from The Guardian, The Times and various tabloids took part.

I had in the past been guilty of flippancy in chronicling the achievements of Ms Robinson. It has struck me as quaint that she can adopt her most apocalyptic look in telling contestants they could win £1,250 when, on the other side, Chris Tarrant is doling out cheques for £250,000. I also, in foolhardy style, revealed in this paper yesterday that a cheering audience for The Weakest Link last week was supplied by the BBC from among its own employees.

The Robinson revenge was coming. Never again will I laugh at a quiz-show contestant. One emerges from a two-hour session on The Weakest Link exhausted, chastened and doubting one's own intellect and virility. One almost has a new-found respect and reverence for Anne Robinson. Almost.

And I thought it would be such a doddle. I've been doing a fair bit of quizzing recently, most notably as a member of the (usually) winning Independent quiz team in the trendy-but-taxing Atlantic Bar and Grill quiz, where we have had a modicum of pleasure in puncturing such egos as Jonathan Ross and David Baddiel to ever more obscure and erudite questions from Jeremy Beadle, whose general knowledge is astounding. But Mr Beadle is a gentleman. Anne Robinson is no lady.

In the hospitality room, where you have a warm-up round (yes, it seems there really is training for TV quiz shows), I was able to survey my opponents. I could cope with being beaten by a heavily pregnant Times columnist Caitlin Moran - that could be put down to chivalry. I could even bear a victory by The Guardian; likewise the Mail, Express, Sunday People and Mirror. But all our hearts sank as in walked the man from The Sun. Headlines of "It was The Sun wot won it" swam before all our eyes.

The TV reporter from The People was beginning to have a panic attack. "Say they ask me something about Coronation Street and I get it wrong. I'll never live it down."

Then it was to the studio where the music reached its edgy crescendo and Anne came on, all in black, leather trousers, wire glasses, large, spiky Armani heels. The lights dimmed and I turned round briefly to see that our own audience included the heads of BBC1 and BBC2 - the corporation's equivalent of performing in the Colosseum in front of Agrippina and Messalina.

Ms Robinson fixed us with a look of contempt. "So, who will turn out to be the most stupid of you. Which one will be an embarrassment to their profession?" The questions began. "Cornucopia is a horn of what?" she asked me. I floundered. Jeremy Beadle will attest that normally with no lights, no music, no contemptuous quiz-mistress, I'd have got it, but I went blank Jeremy, honestly. And quickly suffering from the sense of injustice that quiz-show contestants feel, I silently protested that the question to Caitlin Moran of The Times ("What type of animal was Walt Disney's Dumbo?") wasn't quite in the same league. Just because she's pregnant, I sulked.

But for Anne Robinson, this was a golden moment. "Don't you use long words like cornucopia on The Independent," she queried. "Only in headlines, I answered, with a faint attempt at humour to redeem myself. But I was safe for the moment anyway, scoring full marks in the next round - "Words short enough for you this time?" said Anne inevitably.

Then Anne Robinson turned with consummate skill on The Guardian. When the paper's media correspondent Matt Wells failed to know the pub the Archers drank in or which state in America was the Empire State, Ms Robinson gave vent to years of grudges. "So, writing about the media on The Guardian you don't need to know anything about The Archers or America. How do you think you did in that round?" "I was the worst." Well, that's a question you got right, anyway."

Just before that, it was my turn to go. No trouble with naming the café from Friends. But when asked which biscuit beginning with "M" had almonds, I muttered something about marzipan; and the female contestants voted me out unanimously.

"Don't you do any cooking, David," asked Ms Robinson, who probably bakes biscuits for the Watchdog crew. You then take what the show terms (I kid you not) "the walk of shame". They instruct you where to walk (it is the longest route from the stage), and then you are interviewed about who you think should come off next. I said it should be The Guardian man as he suffered from his organ's smugness (he had just castigated the poor lass from the People who did not know which British prime minister met Hitler at Munich - "I'm not good on prime ministers; why don't they ask me about Tracy Shaw's sex life?" she whispered to me).

Who did I think would be the next to go, the interviewer asked me. "Caitlin Moran of The Times," I replied, now harbouring no good feelings towards the people who had nominated me. "She's seven months pregnant and she won't be able to stand up much longer."

The outcome, of course, was inevitable. It was The Sun wot won it, their man proving an expert on everything from sport to science. He was pretty good on repartee to. When Robinson chided him for not knowing the difference between an abbot and an archbishop, he replied: "We only do vicars."

Outside, Anne Robinson came up and consoled me. "Yours was the most articulate off-screen interview," she smiled. I knew how infant aristocrats must feel when their nanny pats them on the head. But inside I knew what she was really saying. "You talk a good game, mate, but when it comes to the crunch, well, don't crunch on a macaroon."

A relaxed Robinson was considerably less scary. She chatted about how she had been campaigning for some time for daytime TV to be less cheesy, more edgy. This quiz show fulfilled that aim. The hardest thing about the job, she said, was wearing the Armani heels. Almost endearing. Almost. But clearly as the weeks go by, she's drifting more and more into character. The episode wasn't going to be broadcast, no doubt because we had just won the record low sum. "I didn't expect you all to be quite so pathetic," she beamed.

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